SFEMF: Aqulaqutaqu, Doug Lynner, Olivia Black

Today we look back at the final concert of the 2015 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. The program featured artists – some familiar, some new – exploring different aspects of electronic music, both aurally and visually.

The evening opened with AQULAQUTAQU, a “fractal alien operetta” by Kevin Blechdom (aka Kristin Grace Erickson) in collaboration with Madison Heying, Matthew Galvin and David Kant.

[Photo: peterbkaars.com]

The operetta, complete with visuals, costumes, and dance, follows the story of two scientists on the planet AQULAQUTAQU, whose discoveries run afoul of the theocratic rulers of the planet (at a level Earth’s contemporary theocrats could only dream of) and end up feeling the planet for Earth. During the story, one of the scientists presents the story of Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, a corruption of Little Red Riding Hood complete with images of vague homophones to the words of the story, and a larger-than-life wolf costume. The journey to Earth sets a very different tone from the sections on the homeworld, and the finale in which the arrivals on Earth have a dance party (with the wolf joining in) was fun and reminded me of 1960’s tropes where everyone comes out and dances in the middle or end of a show.

The next set was a solo performance by Doug Lynner on his original Serge modular synthesizer along with a Cyndustries Zeroscillator.

Doug Lynner

We have frequently chronicled Doug Lynner and his virtuosic performances here on CatSynth, and they are always impressive, sometimes quite subtle and intricate before breaking out into louder noisier sections. This one was a bit different, focusing more on beats and harmonies that approached traditional Western music, perhaps even a bit towards electronica. Of course it was all done with the same instrumentation as his more abstract performances – the Serge modulars tend to have simple functions like slopes that are combined into more complex signals, so it likely takes a bit to assemble something as rhythmic and harmonic as this performance was.

The final set featured a piece by Olivia Block titled Aberration of Light. Originally composed for a live cinema piece, it was presented here as a four-channel realization in a darkened hall. The one minimalist visual element was a single cone of light striking fog (emitted from a machine offstage).

Olivia Block
[Photo: peterbkaars.com]

The piece and the visual was meditative. One could focus on just the sounds and the interaction with the room, which forms another instrument of the piece, but I did find myself focused on the light cone as I am often drawn to minimalist visual elements. It also gave the performance a more mysterious quality than would have been present if the room was entirely dark.

Overall it was a solid show and thought Block’s piece was a great ending to the festival. Because of many circumstances beyond the scope of this article, this final show of SFEMF was the only one I was able to attend the year. I am glad I was able to make it, and looking forward to next year’s festival.

Outsound New Music Summit: Vision Music 

The final night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured three sets combining music with visuals. The room was dark, with all illumination coming from the visuals on the screen and the sonic elements abstractly arrayed around them.

The evening opened with Mika Pontecorvo’s project Bridge of Crows performing an improvised set to a segment Pontecorvo’s film The Bedouin Poet of Mars: The Last Poet.

Mika Pontecorvo
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The film’s story is a bleak tale of a poet who is the last survivor of a once-thriving civilization on Mars, searching for a home for himself and the last surviving plant. He sees the results of several self-destructive civilizations on his journey. Despite the dark subject matter, the visuals themselves were lively and abstract at times, with lots of interesting visual and image processing.

Bedouin Poets of Mars : The Last Poet

The music moved in and out of a variety of textures and dynamic levels, though the focus remained on the visuals throughout. Joining the regular ensemble was Bob Marsh, wearing one of his trademark suits and performing on a string instrument made from a tree.

Bob Marsh
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

One disadvantage of the darkened environment was that I did not get to see much of Marsh or his instrument, which I would have liked to. Rounding out the ensemble were Kersti Abrams on winds, Elijah Pontecorvo on electric bass, Greg Baker on electronics, hydrophone and clarinet, Mark Pino on percussion, and Mariko Miyakawa on vocals.

Next up was Tender Buttons, a trio featuring Tania Chen on small instruments, with Gino Robair and Tom Djil on analog modular synthesizers. The trio performed sounds against live interactive video by Bill Thibault.

Tender Buttons
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The set was anchored by Chen’s piano, which ranged from intricate and complex to loud and aggressive, augmented by small toy instruments. The piano interlaced with Thibault’s abstract visuals, which started out simply but grew more complex over the course of the set. Throughout, the visuals displayed words from Gertrude Stein’s poem Tender Buttons, but were increasingly mixed with the more complex elements.

Tender Buttons
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

Robair and Djll provided a variety of adept sounds from modular synthesizers and circuit-bent electronics to complement the piano and video.

The final set featured live interactive video by Bill Hsu with James Fei on reeds and Gino Robair returning on percussion.

James Fei with Bill Hsu visuals
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

I am quite from the minimalist quality in Bill Hsu’s visuals. The began with very simple geometric elements, but soon hope added a bit of controlled chaos that led to very organic elements on the screen.

Bill Hsu visuals

Befitting the visuals, the music in this set was more sparse, with moments of quiet and loud solo bursts from Robair and Fei. Robair percussion worked best with the early geometric elements, and Fei’s complex runs on saxophone worked well with the more organic visuals.

I enjoy sets that integrate visuals and music into a single unit. It can sometimes be a challenge to take everything in, much less write about it afterwards. But I hope this gives a little insight into the evening. It was a good closing concert for this years Summit, and was appreciated by those who came only that night as well as the loyal audience members who were there most or all days. This concludes the 2015 Outsound New Music Summit, and I look forward to its return next year.

Outsound New Music Summit: Vacuum Tree Head, avantNoir and Cabbages, Captain and King

While the first night of the 2015 Outsound New Music Summit was billed as “Quiet Noise”, the second night was something altogether different. The concert features three exuberant but very different bands spanning a wide variety of musical techniques and styles.

First up was Cabbages, Captain and King, a trio featuring Eli Wallace on piano, Karl Evangelista on guitar, and Jon Arkin on drums.

Cabbages, Captain and King
[Cabbages, Captain and King. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

I have become quite a fan of Eli Wallace’s piano playing, which is virtuosic and energetic. Combined with Evangelista’s intense and varied guitar performance and Arkin’s drums, the trio packed quite a punch. The speed and energy rarely let up throughout the 45-minute set. The music had an unsettled quality, always moving forward and never quite reaching a groove or tonal center. There were occasional quiet moments when the overall intensity of the performance let up, and the final notes with prepared piano were a nice touch.

Eli Wallace
[Eli Wallace. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Next up was Liza Mezzacapa’s Bait & Switch performing her project avantNoir. The pieces in this project were all inspired by noir fiction. The first half was based on “hard-boiled” stories by Dashiell Hammett set in 1920s San Francisco – with many familiar places and streets references – and the second half was based on “soft boiled” stories by Paul Auster set in 1980s New York (also a familiar setting).

Lisa Mezzacapa's avantNOIR with Bait&Switch
[Lisa Mezzacappa’s avantNOIR with Bait & Switch. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The music fit into the punctuated jazz style I have heard many times from Mezzacapa and her bands. But there was a distinctly 1970s crime show vibe to many of the pieces that contrasted with the times and places of the original stories’ settings. The interplay of bass, guitar with wah wah and drums, along with some of the electronic sounds from guest performer Tim Perkis led to this 1970s feel. The project itself suggests film scores for the stories, and I liked the idea of changing listeners’ expectations, especially if they have seen Hollywood versions of these stories. In addition to Mezzacapa and Perkis, the set featured Aaron Bennett on tenor saxophone, Jordon Glenn on drums, John Finkbeiner on guitar and special guest William Winant on vibraphone and sound-effects percussion. I found Winant’s seltzer bottle and tiny door particularly amusing.

Aaron Bennet and William Winant
[Aaron Bennett and William Winant. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Then it was time for Vacuum Tree Head to take the stage.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Vacuum Tree Head. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Led by Jason Berry who was conducting this evening, led us through fast-paced set of short pieces that ranged from classic jazz to deep funk to something approaching metal rock. Above the fray were vocals by Amy X Neuburg, who brought her theatrical and operatic voicings to the rather challenging music along with her very distinctive performance personality.

Amy X Neuburg, Vacuum Tree Head

Jason Berry, Vacuum Tree Head
[Amy X Neuburg and Jason Berry. Photos: peterbkaars.com.]

Many of the pieces, which were composed primarily by Berry and Michael de La Cuesta who together formed the band in 1989(!), were premiers. The band made the most of the variety of music, with an extended fusion keyboard solo by Amanda Chaudhary in DL DS, deep funk from the whole band behind Rich Corney’s guitar in EMS, a blindingly short jazz tune inspired by the Akhnaton dynasty of ancient Egypt, and a loud metal tune that may have been a first for an Outsound New Music Summit.

Amanda Chaudhary et al, Vacuum Tree Head
[Amanda Chaudhary et al. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Rich Lesnick (also a band-mate of mine in Reconnaissance Fly) brought solid saxophone and bass clarinet, including an extended moody bass-clarinet solo in Cushion Fortress; and Michael de la Cuesta featured in many songs on analog synthesizer, guitar and glockenspiel. Justin Markovits held things together with his drumming, assisted in the rhythm section by Tom Ferguson on bass. There was even a bit of abstract electronics from Amy X Neuburg on Blippo Box and Amanda Chaudhary on modular synth.

Michael de la Cuesta, Vacuum Tree Head Justin Markovits, Vacuum Tree Head
[Michael de la Cuesta and Justin Markovits. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The set was very well received by audience, some of whom were longtime fans of the band and some hearing us for the first time. And personally, it was quite a privilege to be part of the band for this event.

Overall, it was a strong evening for the summit, one that stood out as quite contrasting among the sets as well as with the other concerts.

Outsound New Music Summit: Cheryl Leonard and Machine Shop

The opening concert of the 2015 Outsound New Music Summit open with a very elemental program based on music from wood, stone, earth and metal.

First up was Cheryl Leonard performing compositions for natural objects, including shells, stones, wood, and water. Each of the pieces was accompanied by a video created from other artists.

Cheryl Leonard
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

Water and extreme weather were major themes of her set. The first piece was based on field recordings of melting ice on lakes in Yosemite National Park. As an ominous sign for the chronic drought we are facing here in California and climate change worldwide, the ice was thawing an crackling without a snow cover in mid January. Nonetheless, the music Leonard created from this was beautiful, the thumps and crackles formed a surprisingly strong rhythm with changing meter. Another piece focused on a storm while in open waters of the Arctic ocean as seen through the porthole of a ship, with video by artist Genevieve Swift. This piece was more turbulent compared to the more mesmerizing nature of the melting ice.

Cheryl Leonard playing dried kelp

Leonard also employs quite a variety of musical techniques for her natural objects, not simply percussive techniques. In the photo above, we see her playing dried kelp as a wind instrument.

Next up was Machine Shop, a duo featuring Karen Stockpole on gongs and Drew Webster on electronics. The dominant element in this set was metal, but not simply metal as found objects, but forged into strong and beautiful instruments.

Karen Stackpole, Machine Shop
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

Gongs can of course be loud and chaotic, but the rich harmonics and interplay among them can be brought out for subtle musical phrasing with a master artist like Karen Stockpole. The sounds ranged from loud booming drones to individual nearly pure tones and beats among harmonics from different instruments. There were also more abrupt staccato notes that she played with a mobile gong while walking around the stage. The overall effect was hypnotic, but nonetheless very musical with phrasing and a subtle form of rhythm.

Karen Stackpole
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

It was often difficult to tell where the acoustic sounds of the gongs ended and where the electronic processing began, which is not a bad thing, as I think electro-acoustic ensembles should often blend these elements. In the last two pieces, however, Webster’s electronics were more apparent, and one could here the processing as well as his synthesizer contributions to the sound which complemented the amplified gongs.

Machine Shop

Overall, it was a strong start to this years summit. Both sets were very well received by the full house in attendance; and it was refreshing to see that the artists received support for their recordings for sale (at least one of the new releases is now in the CatSynth collection).

Most photographs for this article are from Peter B. Kaars, who was featured earlier in the week with an exhibit and reception. You can read our report from that event here.

Outsound Music Summit: Peter B Kaars Photography and Tim Perkis’ Noisy People

If you have followed our past coverage of the annual Outsound New Music Summit you have encountered the photography of Peter B. Kaars. Indeed, his photos appear on many of our reviews of Outsound events and beyond. This year, his work was the subject of an evening of the summit, with a gallery installation and reception.

Peter B Kaars Photography
[Image by Rent Romus, Outsound Presents]

For this event, Kaars selected images that were single portraits, each capturing an aspect of the performers’ musical personality.

Peter B Kaars photography

I was particularly happy and honored to be the subject of one of his selections: a close-up of my hand on a modular synth.

Peter B Kaars photo of Amanda Chaudhary on modular synth

The exhibition was a chance to see Kaars’ work as an artistic endeavor independent of the performances being documented. Or as Executive Director Rent Romus put it: “an artist making art of artists making art.”

The evening also featured a screening of Tim Perkis’ film Noisy People, which documented the Bay Area new-music and free-improvisation scene in the period 2002-2007 by following a collection of familiar artists.

Tim Perkis' Noisy People

Indeed, all of the artists featured in the film are people and I know and in many cases played with, either during the period chronicled or through countless events after I moved to San Francisco in 2008. It was fun to see some folks I know now in an earlier incarnation, and how their music has collaborations have changed. Of course, seeing it in an audience comprised of members of scene made the experience that much more fun.

You can find out about the concerts for this year’s Summit at the official website.

Vacuum Tree Head at Outsound New Music Summit

Vacuum Tree Head at Outsound New Music Summit, July 30

The band Vacuum Tree Head returns for a performance at this year’s Outsound New Music Summit. The event will be on July 30, 8PM at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street in San Francisco.

Vacuum Tree Head is led by Jason Berry – that’s “J.B.” who draws the Mensa Cat Monday cartoons. The poster that appears above is his artwork as well. The new lineup for the band features Amanda Chaudhary on keyboards, Rich Corney on guitar, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar, orchestral chimes and synthesizers; Tom Ferguson on bass; Richard Lesnik on saxophones and bass clarinet, Justin Markovits on drums, and Amy X Neuburg on vocals and custom electronics. From the Summit website:

VTH has created music ranging from ambient electronics pieces scored for feedback, bass clarinets, singing bowls and bowed gongs (Tar’Hai Wizard, a piece dedicated to the great Jean “Moebius” Giraud), to tightly composed, guitar-based punk/prog songs (the album “THIRTEEN”), to abstract electronics and audio collage (the album “Aum Carve Etude H”), and all stops in between. The band is currently moving into areas involving the intersection of tightly composed compositions and free improvisation

The even also includes two other great bands. Cabbages, Captain, & King is a trio of Jon Arkin (drums), Karl Evangelista (guitar), and Eli Wallace. I have heard Wallace’s virtuosic piano a few times already this and looking forward to more. Finally, we will be treated to a performance of a new project avantNOIR by Lisa Mezzacappa with her Bait & Switch.

Please visit the Outsound New Music Summit for a full rundown of all the evenings. (We at CatSynth will be the to cover all four concerts.)

CatSynth in the Window, Artists’ Television Access

I participated in quite a few performances in 2014, with a lot of challenges and memorable experiences along the way. But there was perhaps none quite as unique or purely fun as my solo set in the window gallery of Artists’ Television Access (ATA). It was part of a month-long program called Almost Public/Semi-Exposed, a “series of installed performances ranging from movement to musical, ritual to reenactment, interactive to endurance.”

[Photo by David Samas]

My performance, entitled “CatSynth in the Window”, was a solo with Moog theremini, analog modular, full cat-print costume and body movement. The theremin was a controller for various sound-generated modules, including the Metasonix R54 and Benjolin by Rob Hordjik. And at three hours with just one break, it was among the longest continuous performances I have done.

[Photo by David Samas]

Immediately I know this was going to be a great experience. The window was my stage, and the city bustling by on Valencia Street was my audience. Many walked by with just a curious glance. Some stopped to listen for a few minutes. Others stayed a while, contacting friends to come check it out. One little girl called me a witch.

[Photo by David Samas. Click to enlarge.]

Sonically, the performance was relatively sparse, with usually no more than two sound sources at once. Motion and gesture were an central part of the performance, as was interacting with the people on the street. Here is a video excerpt.

[Video by Claire Bain]

Although I was inside the window, the sound was being broadcast through a speaker in the entryway of ATA to the outside so that people could clearly hear as they walked by. One unexpected challenge was the jazz band practicing inside the main ATA space. But I made the most of it using my skills as a jazz pianist and riffing off the standards they were playing. The audience interaction was among the most rewarding parts of the event, matching the gestures and motions suggested by people outside. For an extended period of time, one of the neighborhood’s icons Diamond Dave was completely enthralled by the performance and interacting with me.

In this next video, you can see a bit of our impromptu “duo”, as well as some of my attempts to play against the jazz ensemble.

[Video by David Samas]

The performance was an endurance test, physically and mentally, but it was an incredibly rewarding experience and I hope to be able to do it again, perhaps bringing to different venues and cities. It was interesting to see how a diverse flow of people choose to observe or interact. Indeed it was a mutual coming together at times, quite democratic and independent compared to a traditional concert setting. I would also like to think it was a positive contribution to the ATA site itself and to life along Valencia Street. I like how vibrant the street and neighborhood is, but providing a little weirdness and unusual performance brings back a bit of San Francisco’s long history of unique culture back.

A big thank you to Ariel Zaccheo and Tessa Siddle for curating this event, and to the folks at Artists’ Television Access for providing us the time, space and support.

Outsound Music Summit: Touch the Gear

The 2014 Outsound Music Summit in underway. And as usual, we began with our popular community event Touch the Gear. We had a large crowd of all ages, and delightful cacophony of unusual musical sounds.


This year, I brought the analog modular (specifically, about two-thirds of the current module collection) and the new Moog Theremini:

Amanda Chaudhary with analog modular and Moog Theremini
[Photo by Frank Lin]

There were several first-time participants this year, including Elise Gargalikis and Dmitri SFC of coa-modular.comwith their “wall of Serge”. It was fun to get to try this out myself.

[Photo by Elise Gargalikis‎]

There was more Serge modular to be found, courtesy of Lx Rudis.


Aaron Oppenheim brought classic circuit-bent toys, including a Speak&Math and the Talking Computron.


It was a bit of inspiration to get of my tuchus and circuit-bend the Speak&Spell sitting in my studio!

There was a Minimoog sighting, of course.


Long-time participants Matt Davignon and CJ Borosque demonstrated their recent work with effects pedals. Davignon processed drum machines and samplers while Borosque’s pedals were in a closed loop circuit generating their own sound.



There were acoustic instruments as well. David Samas brought his very impressive contrabass ehru. This beast was huge. And it had bells in addition to the strings and resonant chamber (made out of a trunk).



Bryan Day presented his mechanical/electrical/acoustic inventions.


Jaroba shared a variety of wind and percussion instruments with a bit of electronics.

[Photo by Frank Lin]

There were several more presenters, and as usual I don’t have room for everyone in this post. But it was a great event as always, and we at Outsound appreciated everyone’s contributions. Now it is on to the concerts including tomorrow night’s Poetry Freqs show. Please click here for the full schedule!